LONDON — It’s a piece of history. London has gained her first Muslim mayor, a fellow Pakistani-Brit. And though being Muslim bears absolutely no relevance to how Sadiq Khan intends to run London—for Islam is as ambivalent on the difficulties of London’s housing crisis as it is on the human gene sequence—his religion has become relevant.
In successfully integrating their Muslim residents, London, the United Kingdom, Europe, and the wider West have been going through something of an identity crisis.
Islamist Muslims who insist that humanity can only be judged by how Muslim it is, and anti-Muslim bigots who insist that humanity can only be judged by how Muslim it isn’t, have made Islam relevant.
The Regressive Left in Sadiq Khan’s Labour Party, and the Populist Right among Trump’s Republicans have made Islam a hot topic. The only way Islam will cease being an issue is when everyone, Muslim or not, is deemed to share the same rights, and is held to the very same liberal expectations.
Until then, discrimination will continue to feed the poisonous tribalism fueling modern identity politics. This applies whether that discrimination comes in the form of right-wing anti-Muslim bigotry, or in the form of the left-wing bigotry of low expectations that holds Muslims to lesser, illiberal standards. Until these twin bigotries are dealt with, Sadiq Khan’s religious affiliation will, sadly, remain a topic of debate.
In this way, the victory of London’s new mayor as a non-Islamist Muslim is as much a blow to Islamist bigots as it is to anti-Muslim bigots. This victory speaks to the possibilities of integration. It offers hope for our country’s new immigrant families. And as a symbol of social mobility, it provides aspiration to those from humble backgrounds.
Sadiq Khan’s victory is probably the only bit of good news Jeremy Corbyn’s far-left-led Labour Party can truly celebrate this weekend. And celebrate they should. Democracy has spoken. With it, a torn city might be able to begin healing the old wounds of identity and religion re-opened by the muddy campaign to get Khan elected, and the muddy campaign that opposed him.
These muddy campaigns were in fact a microcosm of the identity problems plaguing modern Europe. Is London’s new mayor an Islamist? This question drove a political pendulum swing to both extremes at the expense of a genuine conversation that really needs to be had.
I’ve known Sadiq Khan since 2002 when he was my lawyer while I served as an Islamist political prisoner in Egypt, before he became a Member of Parliament. I’m forever indebted to him for visiting me in Mazra Tora prison, while the world gave up on me.
Due to this history, many in the press asked me for my view on the veracity of the “Islamist” allegations surrounding the new mayor, but I refused to make my views known until after the elections. Yes, this conversation needed to be had, but I preferred to have it only when the tribalisms of left and right, of Muslim and non-Muslim, were left firmly at the door. Election season made that almost impossible.
Sadiq Khan is no Muslim extremist. And it is not only his track record voting for gay rights that proves this. Having known him when I was a Muslim extremist, I know that he did not subscribe to my then-theocratic views.
Many conservatives who desperately opposed Khan jumped the shark when they called him a “radical Islamist,” and linked him to sensationalist headlines that declared he had a “hardcore Islamist past.” Nuance is the friend of truth.
On the other hand many Muslims, and those on the left, preferred to bury their heads in the sand, chastising anyone who dared to challenge Khan on his past Islamist relationships, as “racists.” See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. The Regressive Left’s overuse of the word racism on such matters is as unhelpful as the Populist Right’s overuse of the word “extremist.”
It is as racist to ask these questions, and to have this conversation, as it was when Londoners questioned the white, non-Muslim former Labour mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, about his links to Islamists, or when the press question the white, non-Muslim Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the maverick white politician George Galloway over their ties to extremists.
In other words it’s not racist at all, as Atma Singh—Labour’s own South-Asian Affairs advisor to a former mayor of London—points out. To imply that it is, and to hold Sadiq Khan to a lesser standard than his white colleagues merely because he is a brown Muslim, is the very bigotry of low expectations that fuels identity politics even further. Alongside the environment, extremism is one of the most pressing issues of our day. Of course it will come up in an election campaign.
And in deference to the seriousness of the subject, and the lives lost over it, what came up about Khan’s alleged links to extremists is pertinent. Those questions needed to be asked. I cannot emphasize enough that I write as a liberal, who voted for a Liberal Democrat in this race, and not as a conservative. So now that the election is over, and London has its first Muslim mayor, let us step back and consider the smoke to this conservative fire.
The seeds were sown with Khan’s now-former in-laws. During London’s ’90s Islamist heyday, Khan’s brother-in-law Makbool Javaid was affiliated and listed as a spokesman to the now-banned terrorist group al-Muhajiroun, founded by the hate preacher Omar Bakri Muhammad, and then led by the infamous fanatic Anjem Choudary. I knew of Makbool back then, too. His brothers were colleagues of mine, affiliated to my former extremist organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Through such connections Khan ingratiated himself in the London Islamist scene. In 2003, he appeared at a conference alongside Sajeel Abu Ibrahim, a member of that same banned al-Muhajiroun.
Sajeel ran a camp in Pakistan that trained the 7/7 bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan. Speaking there, too, was one Yasser al-Siri, who had been convicted in Egypt over a political assassination attempt that left a young girl dead.
In 2004, Khan gave evidence to the House of Commons in his capacity as the chair of the Muslim Council of Britain’s legal affairs committee. This is the same Muslim Council of Britain that chose to condole the recent Ahmedi murder victim in Glasgow, by declaring Ahmedis not Muslim.
In his MCB capacity, Khan argued in Parliament that the Muslim Brotherhood cleric Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi “is not the extremist that he is painted as being.”
This is Qaradawi who, among other things, authored a book called The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, in which he justifies wife beating and discusses whether homosexuals should be killed.
Khan’s relationships with extremists ran so deep in fact, that he attended events for the jihadist rights group Cage, and wrote a foreword for one of their reports. Cage has since declared ISIS executioner ‘Jihadi-John’ to be a beautiful man live on the BBC.
Khan’s defence of such a prolific flirtation with Islamism is that he was a human-rights lawyer. However, most of these events were not attended in his capacity as a lawyer at all. One suspects he was simply trying to gain votes.
By 2010, with increasing grassroots popularity among highly organized Islamists and fundamentalists, but carrying the burden of the Labour Party’s War on Terror record, Khan’s bid to get re-elected in his home-base of South London’s Tooting was facing challenges from another Muslim. For unlike the Labour Party, this Muslim’s party had opposed the invasion of Iraq.
Khan’s rival was Liberal Democrat Nasser Butt. Liberal Democrat opposition to the Iraq war posed a serious challenge to Khan and his Muslim power base in Tooting. British South Asian Muslims—myself included—overwhelmingly opposed that war. “Luckily” for Khan, Nasser happened to be an Ahmadi Muslim. Yes, this is as relevant as Sadiq Khan being a Sunni Muslim. In other words not at all, in a perfect world. Alas, Khan’s world was far from perfect. Ahmedis are perhaps the most persecuted minority sects among Sunni Muslims.
Khan knew this, and yet this fact didn’t stop his campaign working closely with Tooting Mosque to stir up anti-Ahmedi sectarian hatred in order to secure the Sunni vote for his victory. For many of my fellow Sunni Muslims Nasser Butt being an Ahmedi was a doctrinal “offence” for which he was personally responsible, while Khan was too junior of an MP at that time to have much to do with the invasion of Iraq. By now, Khan’s religious writing was clearly on the mosque wall.
Again, Khan is no Muslim extremist. Indeed, this cannot be repeated enough. Nor can the fact that Khan clearly has a record of terribly poor judgment in surrounding himself with Islamists and Muslim extremists, and in using them for votes.
For a Muslim politician in modern Britain, this is incredibly tempting and increasingly possible. Neither Britain’s Conservatives nor its Liberal Democrats have been free of such electoral opportunism in the past.
When push comes to shove, gaining power becomes more important for politicians from all parties, than defending principles. And sadly, extremists remain among the most powerful organized forces in Britain’s Muslim grassroots.
But it did not need to be like this. As a column in The Wall Street Journal recently noted “Other Muslim leaders took a different approach”. So no, Khan is no extremist, but it certainly was not ‘racist’ to press him on these issues. Though the cry of racism did eventually boomerang to hit his own campaign.
It is only after knowing how Khan shored up his 2010 power base in Tooting, in part by demonizing his rival as being “not Muslim enough,” that the scandal that hit Khan on the last day of his campaign begins to makes sense.
It was discovered that in 2009 Khan used the racially divisive and derogatory term “Uncle Tom”—on Iranian State TV no less—to describe reforming liberal Muslims, who counter extremism. The question Khan answered here came in specific reference to my own organization, Quilliam.
By 2009, extremism had grown so rife among my own British Muslim community that, in a sign of our times, a Muslim government minister for Social Cohesion would find it politically expedient to call a group of Muslims, who were not in government, “Uncle Toms” simply for criticizing extremism.
The struggles that reforming liberal and ex-Muslims face every day, the dehumanization, the delegitimization, the excommunication, the outcasting, the threats, intimidation and the violence makes this inexcusable.
In their very nature, such slurs are designed to dehumanize the intended target as not Muslim enough, which in turn can incite Muslim on Muslim violence.
Today, Muslim terrorists kill more Muslims than people from any other faith, after they dehumanize them for being “not Muslim enough.” In such a climate, labeling counter-extremist Muslims as “Uncle Toms,” “House Muslims,” or “native Informants” is comparable to calling someone a heretic during the Inquisition, or a ni*** during U.S. segregation.
Degrading the “Muslimness” of someone claiming otherwise is a prerequisite to their murder by terrorists. The recent murder of an Ahmedi shopkeeper in Scotland—whose sect Khan vilified in his 2010 Tooting campaign—brings the seriousness of such slurs home. Khan knows all of this. He really should have known better.
Among my fellow liberals, it would never fly for a white candidate to say something racist, nor incite religious hatred against those deemed not Christian enough. Likewise, it shouldn’t when a brown Muslim politician does so. Khan’s last-minute general apology is a welcome start, but his time as mayor will need to show a track record of courting the right people, while distancing extremists, before it carries any weight.
Why is it OK for a mayor to have shared panels with all manner of Muslim extremists, while actively distancing himself from, and smearing counter-extremist Muslims?
Despite this, liberal Muslim reformers and ex-Muslims alike would probably still lend their good will and support to Khan.
To be honest, in his personal life he is pretty much a liberal Muslim. So much so that his old friends, the extremists, are already classifying him as a traitor for not being anti-Israel enough, and for supporting gay marriage equality.
In a funny twist, some Muslims are now comparing him to those he deemed “Uncle Toms” in the past. Politicians from across the West must learn from a past in playing politics with religion. For anti-Muslim bigots, we’re always too Muslim. For Muslim extremists, we’re never Muslim enough. Luckily for London’s “first Muslim mayor,” God invented Secularism.